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Journal of Women's History 13.2 (2001) 180-189

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Both Sides of the Looking Glass: Faith versus Science in Victorian Great Britain and America

Cynthia Wilkey

Beryl Satter. Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. xii + 382 pp.; ill.; charts. ISBN 0-520-21765-9 (cl).

Alison Winter. Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xiv + 464 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-226-90219-6 (cl).

In an era when the cloning of animals has become possible and Human Genome Project researchers are rapidly identifying every human gene, science, many people think, is fast encroaching on the laws of nature and the province of God. The distinct boundaries that most Americans and Europeans believed separated religion and science have blurred, and fears of a future of genetically engineered human beings are reflected in such popular films as Gattaca, in which genetic engineering determined one's entire life before conception. 1 Such cinema arouses the specter of genetically "flawed" people being horribly discriminated against, or worse. This frightening scenario reflects the anxiety many Westerners felt toward the unbridled advances of science in the late twentieth century.

This uncertainty, however, is not new. Much of Western history reflects efforts to somehow accommodate both science and faith. For many, the simplest solution was to see the two as separate and distinctly different from one another. On the one hand stood science, pure and amoral, and on the other hand existed one's faith, steeped in emotion and spirituality. Yet the split between science and faith remains arbitrary and artificial. The nineteenth-century past illuminates today's science-faith dialogue. Two recent books, Alison Winter's Mesmerized and Beryl Satter's Each Mind a Kingdom, demonstrate that the divisions between science and religion, and objective versus subjective experience, were never clear. Victorians in both Great Britain and the United States engaged in cultural battles to determine the meanings, values, and relationships among science, faith, and religion. At the heart of these debates lay not only the contested terrain of science versus God but also the uncertainties of maintaining class, race, and gender domination in a fast-changing environment that challenged older notions of appropriate power relations. The very concept of authority--who possessed, who defined, and who controlled it--was under assault. [End Page 180]

Both Winter and Satter intelligently explore these issues, although from varying perspectives and in different nations and time periods. Winter uses the mid-nineteenth-century phenomenon of mesmerism (better known today as the practice of hypnosis) as a unique lens through which to view the concerns of Victorian Britons. Satter explores the New Thought movement in the United States between 1875 and 1920. New Thought proponents believed that all humans were capable of a godlike control of mind over matter. Although the authors analyze the significance of rather marginal movements, both do an excellent job of portraying these movements within the larger contexts of the social, political, religious, and even scientific struggles of each period. Winter's book attempts a larger cultural study that does not concentrate on any particular theme, such as gender, whereas Satter's study is a gendered analysis. Each work is meticulously researched and documented, and both books make cogent arguments demonstrating the validity of their basic premises.

As part of her desire "to confirm and explain mesmerism's prominence," Winter provides a detailed account of the movement's history, various followers, and rather late arrival in the British Isles in the 1830s (9). The movement's background is relayed primarily through accounts of its portrayal in the media and its rocky relationship with newly emerging scientific schools and professional organizations. Such an approach undoubtedly strengthens the book's analysis and places mesmerism in its larger social and political context, but it does so at the expense of the clarity that a more straightforward chronology would bring. A simple understanding of mesmerism's history in Great Britain...


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